The notion of attracting tens of thousands more travelers to Hawaii from China - a lucrative market that could help ease the ongoing slump in tourism - continues to entice the state's No. 1 industry.
While the potential growth in Chinese visitors has been a topic of discussion here for the last five years, the urgency heightened recently as worldwide tourism slowed under a global economic downturn. And hope was raised by a U.S.-China memorandum of understanding last year that relaxed travel restrictions.
Hawaii tourism leaders expect the pace of travel from China to Hawaii to quicken beginning early next year, when the first scheduled direct air service between China and Hawaii begins on Hainan Air.
Gov. Linda Lingle returned last week from a six-city trip to China that focused on tapping the growing tourism market for Hawaii as well as developing opportunities and partnerships in international trade.
One reason tourism leaders covet more Chinese visitors is their tendency to spend lavishly when they are here.
State tourism liaison Marsha Wienert points to per person per day spending reports from last year: Chinese visitors: $324; Japanese: $288; U.S. East: $183; U.S. West: $146; and Canadian: $153.
The first regularly scheduled direct flights on Hainan Air to Hawaii will likely start toward the end of the first quarter of next year, Wienert said last week. The airline is considering two weekly flights. Earlier, Hainan's plans called for one weekly flight to begin in January.
Chinese arrivals have been on the rise. In the early 1990s, there were about 10,000 visitors a year from China. That jumped to almost 30,000 by 1998 and closed in on 60,000 last year.
That's still tiny compared with Japanese visitors, who numbered 1.1 million last year. Still the growth in the Chinese market is encouraging, as is the high level of spending by the Chinese.
In 2005, Hawaii and the China National Tourism Administration agreed to increase two-way travel between the destinations. Lingle met with CNTA Chairman Shao Qiwei.
Lingle and Shao discussed the current situation of Chinese tourists going to Hawaii, including: visa issues, new developments in group leisure tour programs, as well as steps that can be taken by the United States and China to increase the number of Chinese visitors to Hawaii.
Joining Lingle on the trip was Dennis Hwang, president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, along with five others associated with the organization, which works to promote Chinese culture and civic responsibility.
Hwang, who is an attorney and scientist, said the trip with the governor will help to lay the groundwork for helping tourism and encouraging commercial exchange.
"These people are willing to travel," Hwang said. "They want to travel because for a long time they haven't been able to go anywhere."
He expects the numbers to climb slowly but steadily once the direct flights begin.
Almost 50,000 visitors from China have come to Hawaii annually in recent years, according to Hawaii Tourism Authority's David Uchiyama. But most of those were on their way to or from another place.
Uchiyama said the state has been been working to be ready with language and cultural preparation. "Direct access will bring a more sophisticated traveler who is looking for a single-destination vacation," he said.
And that means they'll be expecting Chinese-speaking personnel at the front desk, restaurant menus in Chinese and a welcome that doesn't assume that every Asian visitor is from Japan.
"We need to have a real good understanding of the cultural protocols," Uchiyama said.
In July, Starwood Hotels in Hawaii and Kyo-Ya Hotels & Resorts (which owns four Waikiki properties) became the first to create a large-scale Chinese preparation course.
The companies sent about 1,000 frontline employees through a two-hour Chinese culture and language introduction course taught through Kapiolani Community College.
Starwood's Cheryl Williams spent two weeks in China this summer. And she said the hotels here already have incorporated more written guides in Chinese.
To cater to the China market, Williams said, the restaurants have added rice soup, often called jook or rice porridge and "select dumplings or dim sum offerings on our buffets."
Starwood has 150 hotels in China and will open 150 new hotels there within the next few years, she said.
Uchiyama said Hawaii can learn from what happened when Australia welcomed Chinese but didn't speak their language or cater to culinary tastes in the early stages.
"We should see that as a mistake we should try to avoid," he said. "We need to understand they have access to the globe."
Uchiyama said he expects the initial wave of Chinese will feature couples, honeymooners and the romance market, as well as golfers.
He just returned from a China-U.S. summit in Orlando, Fla., and learned that New York is already receiving more than 200,000 arrivals while Hawaii has brought in about 55,000.
And he got a lesson in his preparedness when Chinese officials noticed he had his business cards translated into Japanese and they inquired about his Chinese cards.
At DFS Hawaii, the high-end retailer already is working to cater to visitors from China and South Korea as well as the traditional mainstay of Japanese visitors.
"At DFS our experience has been that Chinese shoppers are avidly seeking luxury branded goods and their per-day spending far exceeds the Japanese," said Sharon Weiner, DFS Group Ltd.'s vice president of global communications and government relations.
Chinese visitors have developed an appetite for name brand merchandise - Louis Vuitton, Coach and Gucci, Weiner said. They'll pay more to be assured that they're buying the real product and not a cheap imitation that is more widely available in Asia.
"They can't trust that brand within their country because of the knockoffs," Weiner said.